Will HR be your next big PR crisis? Odds are, yes.

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By Brian Leadbetter

Workplace culture and climate issues are never far from media headlines – whether that be bullying, intimidation, or varying forms of workplace harassment. Notable recent headline-grabbing examples include damning toxic workplace allegations involving Canada’s former governor general, Julie Payette,  and most recently, sexual harassment allegations involving New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. With the frequency of news headlines and negative reputation hits, why then, do so many organizations miss the mark in managing the fallout from these reputational issues, that invariably become crises?

These issues, if not managed properly, quickly become crises, yet most organizations appear flat-footed, at best, when responding. Platitudes around corporate values and vague commitments to do better become the default parlance, until the next media cycle when said talking points are needed. The institutional playbook becomes duck, cover, and wait until headlines subside. This too, shall pass. While you may see an eventual decline in negative media stories, organizations must look at the long-term reputation impacts as well, not just the short-term daily headlines. These issues will become the constant dripping faucet that will eventually drown your organization’s reputation, if not addressed properly.

The high cost of toxic workplaces isn’t just a reputational issue – it impacts your bottom line. According to recent studies, almost 50% of workers (in the US) have thought about leaving their organization, with 20% who have left their job having done so because of workplace culture, and 60% saying managers are the specific reason why they left. The cumulative cost of turnover due to workplace culture exceeded $223 billon over the past five years. That’s not pocket change.

So, when faced with both sustained negative reputational impacts and a significant hit to financial bottom lines, why do so many organizations fumble, stumble, and tumble their way through addressing workplace climate and culture when these issues become frequent and predominant headline-makers? I’ll share a couple of communications/public-relations insights below.

Isolating an issue to minimize legal and financial risks will generally backfire

This point is all about minimizing legal and financial risk. I’ve written previously about the trifecta of organizational risks – being legal, financial, and reputational. This is all about minimizing legal risk and financial exposure of the organization.

When you hear of a workplace climate issue by way of media, you will generally hear two things in the organization’s response: 1. We take the issue seriously and are committed to a workplace free of harassment, etc., and, 2. This is an isolated incident.

By drawing a fictional box around the issue, the organization is attempting to mitigate its legal and fiduciary risk to the individual(s) exclusively, and thus avoid the necessary broader conversation and broader exposure. Individual cases are much easier to settle, both legally and financially.

This approach falls under the let’s hope we don’t get sued, and let’s hope this falls out of media headlines. Neither of which addresses the bigger picture, that could prompt further negative media attention down the road. You’ve temporarily kicked the can down the road, but only by a few houses. In attempting to isolate and extinguish the individual issue, the organization faces a much higher probability of catastrophic reputation impact by not having fully addressed the broader issues of workplace culture and climate, when the issues eventually resurface. And, they will. This is consistent with the now full-blown crisis involving Canada’s former governor general.

The ‘be vague, not specific’ response will usually fail

 Vagueries are the dripping faucet that will sink your reputation. The Government of Canada’s response to the scathing report investigating a toxic workplace culture under Canada’s former Governor General falls squarely in the ‘be vague, not specific’ response strategy – with a  smattering of isolate, don’t amplify thrown in for good measure.

The result was a largely universal panning of the Government’s public relations response. The Report itself painstakingly documented incidents of yelling, screaming, aggressive conduct, demeaning comments and public humiliation faced by Rideau Hall employees. With the report concluding that the government must act quickly and decisively through meaningful and timely action.

With the report tabled, there was an opportunity for the Government of Canada (via the Prime Minister) to apologize to those directly impacted by the toxic workplace culture at  Rideau Hall and commit to do better going forward by identifying specific steps to be taken. Instead, the headlines focused on the Prime Minister’s defence of the vetting process for Julie Payette.

My advice to you is to offer specifics where you can. It provides reassurance to those directly impacted, and underscores the significance to which your organization takes the issues of workplace culture and climate seriously. The formula is quite simple – show that you CARE (compassion, action, reassurance, examples).

What you want to avoid is the type of response we heard from Prime Minister on this file. The vagueness and generic nature of the response was left meaningless to everyone, and most specifically, to those directly impacted. “I think as a government, we’ve demonstrated time and time again how important it is to create workplaces that are free and safe from harassment and in which people can do their important jobs in safety and security.” The problem here is that employees in Rideau Hall weren’t free from harassment and belittling behaviour, and they most certainly didn’t feel safe or secure in doing their jobs. Rule of thumb: If the lived experience of your employees varies significantly from your aspirational values, it is probably ill-advised to lead with said aspirational values, as the PM did in this case. Focus on the problem at hand, and the remedies to fix the problem.

Prioritize internal engagement and conversations – be open to all feedback

Let’s face it – most organizations are horrible at prioritizing internal communications and engagement among and between employees and organizational leadership. This is a key factor in allowing toxic workplaces to take root and fester.

If you take anything from this column, please let it be that your organization will prioritize internal communication and engagement. And, by this I don’t mean a single FTE employee who is responsible for managing internal communications for a workforce of 10,000+. What I mean is that you have to prioritize the function of ensuring regular feedback loops across your organization. Build them in to your core work, and prioritize the hell out of them. And, be open to all types of feedback (not just positive). Absent mechanisms for authentic and ongoing feedback, you really have no way to assess the health or your organization on a regular basis. Workplace heath surveys completed every two years simply won’t cut it.

Just take some of these stats from a recent employee survey of 40,000 people conducted by workplace consulting firm Emtrain as an illustrative case in point. 83% of employees wouldn’t report workplace harassment if they saw it. 41% of employees aren’t confident that if they made a harassment complaint, their manager would take it seriously. So, how do we fix so many broken workplaces and help employees who need it?

That’s a complex question with a complex answer, but my initial view is to foster a workplace culture that is based on trust, openness, transparency and vulnerability. Be open, honest and transparent in your communications. Trust is built over time, not given. And, please remember, as leaders it’s your job to create a work environment where your employees can function at their best – free from discrimination, bullying, and harassment. It’s not their job to do yours.






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